Waiting-For-Action tells are tells that a player exhibits while he is waiting for an opponent to act. The tells in this section are waiting-for-action tells that indicate a player has a weak hand. They are in a very rough order so that the tells I consider most important are listed first.
LOOKING AT YOU
When it is your turn to act, some opponents will tend to look at you more when their hands are weak.
Many players will give away information with how much eye contact they give you when they’re waiting for you to act. A player who has this type of tell will often display the following pattern:
When he has a strong hand and he’s waiting for you to act, he will tend to look at you very little. He may even avoid looking at you altogether and look down at the table or across the room.
When he has a weak hand and he’s waiting for you to act, he will tend to look at you more. He may even stare at you.
There are several reasons that players might display this looking-at-you tell when they are weak. Some reasons are:
An instinct to watch for danger: It’s an animal’s instinct to keep its eyes on something that might be a threat. Humans are no different; we want to be ready if a situation becomes dangerous. By watching you when he is weak, a player is essentially on his guard for an attack.
A defensive act: When a player is watching you, and not wanting a bet, there may be an element of, “I’m watching you carefully; you better not try anything funny.” A player who exhibits this tell may also exhibit other defensive behavior in his posture or tone of voice.
A need to study an opponent: A player with a weak hand is more likely to study his opponents than if he held a strong hand. This is because strong hands are more likely to play themselves; there is less need to look for weakness in an opponent or to look for a bluffing opportunity.1
1This reasoning applies to both good and bad players. Good players may study their opponents to determine the proper play. (For instance, a good player might study his opponent for a read to determine if he might be able to get away with a bluff.) Bad players will often put on an act of studying their opponents even if they don’t know what they’re looking for.
If a player is looking at you when it’s your turn to act, it may be for one, or more than one, of these reasons. And as pointed out earlier, these reasons don’t have to be conscious. As with many tells, this one can be a player’s natural inclination, and not something they are consciously thinking through.
The inverse of this tell is described in the chapter ‘Looking Away From You.’ Some players with strong hands will avoid eye contact with a potential bettor. These players don’t want to intimidate their opponents out of getting involved. These two tells are basically opposite sides of the same coin.
Now let’s take a look at how this tell can apply to multi-way situations. Let’s say you’re in a no-limit Hold’em game full of mostly bad players. It’s pre-flop, you’re on the button with 2s3s and there’ve been three limps and a raise in front of you. The raise comes from a loose-aggressive player who is constantly raising pre-flop. You think it might be a good spot to make a move with your junk hand, but you’d like to get a little more information. So when the action gets to you, you pause for a couple seconds.
When you pause for a few seconds, many players will often turn to see where the action is. If you look out at the table and see that all of the players in the hand are watching you, waiting for you to act, then you should feel better about raising—because when players are looking at you, there’s a better than average chance that they have weak hands.
If, however, you’ve paused for a few seconds and you see that the raiser isn’t looking at you and seems to be actively avoiding looking in your direction, then you might have a problem. Or if you see a player to your left is acting the same way, you might have a problem.
Once again, let me re-emphasize the importance of correlation. If you’re playing with players who are consistent in their actions and don’t give away anything, then the significance of this tell (or any tell) will go down drastically. For this tell (or any tell) to have much meaning, you should have correlated it with a player’s past behavior in at least a few hands.
However, this tell is so common I often will still trust it in the absence of correlation, assuming I think I’m playing with fairly weak competition. I will often look for this tell when I’m contemplating an aggressive pre-flop raise. Using peripheral vision, I can usually get a sense of how many of the players at the table are looking toward me and who’s looking away. If I see a lot of people facing toward me when I’m waiting to act, I feel much better making an aggressive play.
For players who always look at you
Some players will make an effort to look at you consistently when it’s your turn to act no matter what kind of hand they have. Some of these players may still be giving away their strength or weakness with how relaxed their eyes are.
GRABBING CHIPS DEFENSIVELY
A player who acts as if he is going to call you is probably weak.
You’re playing limit Hold’em. You’re heads-up on the river against a mediocre player. You’ve got Ad 8d. The board is As Ts 7c 2d 3d. You’ve bet the flop and the turn. From the way the hand’s been played, you think it’s even-money whether your opponent has a Ten or a better Ace.
You contemplate a value bet. As you do so, you play with your chips. You notice your opponent grabbing his chips as if he’s ready to call your bet. This is an important clue; you know that this player, like many players, makes this intention-to-call gesture only when he is fairly weak. You bet your hand and he calls with Ten-King, which is exactly the kind of hand you expected to see.
Think about it this way: why would a player with a strong hand give you any indication that he was going to call you if you bet? This is almost always a ploy designed to slow you down and discourage a bet.
The most amateur players will hold out their chips in a very obvious way, basically stating that they’re ready to call your bet. With more experienced players, the tell is more subtle than this. The more subtle variations of this tell are not an act; rather, they are an instinctual physical reaction to being threatened. Usually you’ll see it as someone counting out chips kind of absent-mindedly or someone with their hand poised over their chips as if ready to pick them up. This tell can include a wide range of very subtle hand and arm movements. Once you get better at spotting this tell, you can even try to induce it by just subtly reaching for your chips and watching to see if your opponent’s hand moves slightly towards his chips, or maybe lifts his chips off his stack.
Sometimes players attempting to discourage your bet in this way will fold if bet into. Sometimes they will call the bet. You should try to take note of the situation in which a player exhibits this tell. Does he display this tell when he’s leaning toward folding? Or does he display it when he’s leaning toward calling? Players will usually have specific tendencies in this regard. Limit players are more prone to showing this tell and following it up with an actual call. No-limit players are usually more cognizant and don’t display this tell; if they do perform this tell, though, it will usually mean they will be folding to a bet, not calling.
One thing is pretty certain with this tell, and it’s the most important point: whether a player plans to call or fold when you bet, if they’re performing this tell they will virtually never be raising. Knowing that a player with this tell isn’t going to raise will let you narrow down their hand range a lot. Not having to fear a raise also lets you feel much more comfortable when value-betting.
I occasionally even see a post-bet version of this tell. Someone will bet with a vulnerable hand and then hold their chips out subtly, implying that they’re not afraid of more action, which usually means they don’t want more action.
A hold-over from a previous betting round
Some players will perform this tell on the flop if they feel threatened. Occasionally these players will continue holding their chips defensively even as the turn comes out. If the turn helps them, it will still appear as if they are holding their chips defensively. If you weren’t aware of this possibility, it might appear that the player is performing a false tell in order to fool you, when in fact he was just posed in the same position he started in. With players who stay in a stationary position like this, you have to take into account that this is a possibility, and that the new card may have helped them.
Distinguishing from pre-loading
Sometimes you will see an honest “pre-loading” of a bet, with a player stacking chips if they’re planning on calling or raising. An honest pre-loading is more likely to be exhibited in multi-way pots, usually pre-flop, when the pot is still small and people’s guards are down. Pre-loading usually occurs right before a player is to act, so it’s usually something only the player acting immediately before the pre-loader can spot. It may take some experience in reading the player and the situation to determine if the player is pre-loading or grabbing chips in a defensive way. See the Pre-loading chapter for more information.
INDICATING A FOLD
Players will often show their honest intention to fold pre-flop and in multi-way pots.
When the action is multi-way and when the pot is small, mediocre players are not as careful about concealing their intention to fold, because there is not much direct benefit to hiding that information. Even players who have good etiquette, and who normally wouldn’t act out of turn, will frequently give away their intent to fold in multi-way pots.
This might seem like an obvious tell. I know everyone has seen players who make it obvious that they’re getting ready to fold. But I don’t think many people truly take advantage of this easy-to-spot information. By paying full attention to situations when the players around you are telegraphing their weakness in this way, you can give yourself much more playing room and raise or call with more hands.
Pre-flop indications of folding
Pre-flop (or the first betting round of any poker game) is as multi-way as it gets. When there’s a bunch of people still in the hand, there’s little direct downside for a player who gives away his intention to fold. It should become a habit for you to watch how the players behind you are holding their cards. Some will blatantly hold their cards with their arm extended, as if they’re about to toss the cards in the muck. Some people won’t be that clear-cut, but will still have certain patterns that make their intentions easy to deduce.
Here’s a few common patterns you might see:
– Occasionally players will let their weak cards sit out kind of far from them, as if unafraid that someone might accidentally muck them. If the cards were strong the player would probably do something to protect them, or at least position them closer.
– Some straightforward players will place a card protector on their cards if they intend to play their hand.
– Some opponents with mediocre cards will place a card protector on their cards as if to announce they’re interested in the hand. Or else they’ll have chips in their hand as if to indicate they’re willing to call. But they won’t do either of these things when they have a very strong hand. If they had a strong hand, they wouldn’t want to give any indication that they’re interested in playing. This means that if you see them “expressing interest” in playing, their hands are weak to medium-strength, not strong.
For many players, a little bit of observation will allow you to correlate their way of holding starting cards with their intended pre-flop action. Spend some time watching one player at a time to get a sense for how readable their actions are. Concentrate first on the player immediately to your left. Once you feel pretty comfortable with one player and what he’s doing (or if you decide he’s not giving anything away) move on to observing the next player.
This type of tell is usually only displayed by the weakest players. Better players will usually have a consistent way of handling their cards. But you’d be surprised how often even good players will give away their honest intentions to fold if they’re distracted, bored, or tilting.
(Also, to state the obvious; some players don’t look at their hole cards until it’s their turn to act, so obviously this tell won’t work for them.)
Indications on later streets
In multi-way pots on later rounds, this tell is useful for different reasons. When players are in multi- way pots and they have a hand with no chance of winning, they’re less likely to be thinking about outplaying or bluffing multiple players. Also, a player may be disappointed by the outcome of the hand (having missed a draw, for example) and so won’t care about the usual etiquette of not revealing action out-of-turn. In both of these situations, players are more likely to be transparent in their actual intention to fold, because they don’t see any immediate benefit to continuing to appear interested in the hand.
Let’s say you’re in a limit Hold’em pot with two other players. On the river, the first player bets. You’re second to act. You pause for a moment (good things can happen when you pause a second or two) and notice the player behind you looking frustrated and gesturing to fold. Knowing he’s folding means you can consider calling with more hands or raising for value or a bluff.
As a false tell
In Caro’s book, he said that when you notice people readying to fold out-of-turn it is usually deception, and that they were concealing great strength. I think this may be true at very low stakes games, or maybe very infrequently with decent players who have worked at setting up this tell for a big situation. But I have practically never seen anyone pretend they were folding as a false tell. Probably the main reason is that it’s just not a very useful false tell, because you can pretty much only use it once against an opponent and then they know they can’t trust your physical behavior. If you see this tell in typical games, and especially in multi-way pots, it is much more likely that a player is simply stating his intention to fold out-of-turn due to boredom or frustration or bad etiquette.